Hinges on secondary school doors across the country will swivel open less frequently this year, as the new academic year starts with 20,000 fewer pupils and 1,000 fewer teachers, an alarming sign of an unstoppably shrinking Lithuania. Though empty schools signify the first big demographic shifts Lithuania has been through, some warn that not only a feeble birth rate, globalization and gloomy economy are to blame. “An overwhelming distrust in the state itself” is the problem, says Povilas Gylys, a prominent economist.
So where is the army of the missing school kids? Lithuanian Minister of Education and Science, Gintaras Steponavicius, a liberal, in a matter-of-fact composure, says “There is no one definite answer.”
“The pupil numbers have been dropping for a number of years. Besides, due to the shrinking school network, some 1,000 teachers are made redundant this year,” Steponavicius said prior to Sept. 1, the kick-off of a new academic year.
Is the minister partly to blame for the deserting Lithuanian landscape? Definitely, yes, says Eugenijus Jesinas, one of the heads of Lithuania’s Education Employee Trade Union (LEETU).
But taking part of the guilt would mean suicide for Steponavicius, who is on the Liberal Movement’s top for the Oct. 14 parliamentary elections ballot.
“The catastrophic school attendance has to be chalked up to the ministry’s ignorant and common-sense defying decisions,” says Jesinas. He adds: “Instead of bringing more importance and value to secondary education, the ministry has been encouraging pupils to emigrate.”
Because of such a “global” approach, he says there are plenty of tenth- and eleventh-graders, who pack up and hop onto UK-bound planes to join their parents there. “The minister should ring all his available alarm bells, announcing such a huge plummet in school attendance this year. But he does not. It is a shame,” the trade union head says.
School enrollment this year is down to 367,000 pupils, from 387,000 students last year. “Unfortunately, the plunge is a direct result of emigration,” the minister says.
Kindergartens do not wait for sacked teachers
Due to the pupil shrinkage, a horde of senior teachers awaits being cut. To placate the riled teachers, most of whom have already reached the retirement age of 65, the minister assured that those willing to stay in the job market are encouraged to do so by using their teaching skills in nurseries and kindergartens.
These establishments had temporarily seen improved demographics in the form of larger enrollments which, however, have nothing to do with the minister, but with the ruling Conservatives who, in 2009, adopted lucrative maternity leave privileges. The benefits, however, were trimmed drastically in 2010 due to their unbearable financial constraint to the budget.
But even understaffed and affording little salaries, kindergartens can hardly give refuge for the axed teachers. “It is ridiculous to hear how the minister juggles his words. Instead of telling everyone the teachers are unnecessary and will be cut, he wraps up the news in confetti,” a kindergarten director at Klaipeda said angrily.
Teachers blame education authorities
The LEETU head especially chastises the Ministry’s head for the education network’s reforms in the countryside. “Secondary schools are stripped of their status as secondary schools and become main schools with a smaller budget. Just because of that, secondary schools throughout the country lose 100,000-150,000 litas (around 30,000-42,000 euros) every year,” claims Jesinas. He adds: “In reality, for many countryside children, the change of school status means that they, instead of finishing the nearby school they used to always go to, have to figure out how to reach a school a dozen kilometers away. Thus the children are being deliberately taught not to make long-lasting friendships and to get ready to move around. Or abroad.”
Besides, the union activist points out that some schools resisting their status change risk being ignored when it comes to allocating EU payouts for upgrading the schools.
“The Ministry is in charge of distributing EU money. I often hear secondary school headmasters complaining of being forced to downgrade their school status in order to receive the EU money,” Jesinas maintained.
Authorities defend reforms as inevitable
But the Education and Science Ministry’s Vice-minister, Vaidas Bacys, asked to comment on the trade union leader’s accusations, rebutted them, calling them “biased” and “unsubstantiated.”
“The reforms the ministry is carrying out have been triggered by the demographics, and only by that. They are inevitable,” the vice-minister stressed.
However, he admits it is hard to explain the impressive drop in the pupil numbers this year.
“Until recently, parents would often live and work abroad; meanwhile, children would attend school in Lithuania. However, lately, more and more parents decide to take their children, even those who are about to finish school, to their emigration hubs,” the Ministry representative said.
A lot of schoolchildren, the vice-minister says, have not been accounted for. He assumes the work has been done better for this academic year.
It is believed there are 13,000 schoolchildren in the Pupil Register, but many of them have never attended school. Because a lot of them come from families relying on social benefits, the ministry threatens to cut them off if the families do not make their children attend school.
Whether it would work is in doubt.
The process is irreversible
Can the process of emptying schools be stopped? And what does a deserted countryside mean to Lithuania? “I’m afraid the process is irreversible. The schools are a reflection of the scope of emigration and other trends in our society. Despite the temporary hike in the birth rate following the maternity privileges during 2008-2009, which ultimately appeared to be a too big pressure for the budget, the overall birth rate is declining. So how can one expect to keep the countryside kindergartens open? And then the schools? Sure, every school would like to retain its status, which guarantees larger funding and more jobs, but how can you expect to run a secondary school with only 60 pupils in it?” asks Jonas Liesis, a parliamentarian.
Obviously, you cannot.
“We all have to admit Lithuania has been through a major demographic shift and, instead of intimidating each other with what may be ahead, I’d heed the positive things we see despite the alarming trends. Like the academic achievements of our schoolchildren, both in urban and countryside areas. The pupils tend to score high grades despite the fact they may have changed several schools prior to exams. And the students enter prestigious universities abroad, which shows the high level of our teachers,” the MP stressed.
He, however, admits he is dumb-founded by the staggeringly high decrease of schoolchildren this year. “Down by 20,000? That’s mind-blowing. The calculation must be wrong at some point,” he wondered.
Liesis says that Lithuanian universities are the ones to possibly deal with considerably fewer students in the future.
Poland sets example for Lithuania
Another member of parliament, Vydas Gedvilas, agrees that high emigration and decreasing birth rates result in fewer classes, fewer pupils and, ultimately, school closure. “But underneath that lays people’s distrust in the state itself. People simply do not see their future in Lithuania and do not link their and their children’s future with it. That is alarming. On the other hand, globalization has made an ill impact as well. And just because of the latter, the Education and Science Ministry, despite the dropping numbers of pupils, ought not to slash financing for secondary education,” Gedvilas stresses.
He is convinced the more money the state will allot for education, the higher quality education will be and the stronger the desire to stay in Lithuania will be.
“I really like the education system in Poland, where teachers, after five years of work, are entitled to have a year-long paid break. And those teachers in the countryside are entitled not only to free accommodation, but also 25 acres of land. Alas, our focus in the education system is on cuts, not encouragement of our teachers,” the parliamentarian points out.
A thorough overhaul is needed
Blunter and more assertive was Povilas Gylys, former foreign minister, prominent economist and a candidate in the parliamentary elections.
“All like to blame the high emigration for everything, but it lies just on the surface of much more intricate issues. The bottom line is people are contemptuous to the corrupt system they see on every level. The majority of Lithuanians have lost their faith in democracy and powerful institutions. And, therefore, people do not want to bear and raise their kids in such a country. We’ve gone a long way from the years of fighting for our independence, which carried us for quite some time, but when the economic reality has overcome us, we hit the road hard. I believe all foundations of our statehood, and their operations have to be overhauled in order to bring more hope for our people. And, definitely, new people have to come to power, capable of making the change,” Gylys told The Baltic Times.